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Over/Under-rated: Your Guide to Popular Reading

As an avid book reader who was taught to enjoy the classics, I used to feel squirmy about enjoying books that weren’t “literary.” You know what I’m talking about. I see you, over there, trying to hide your Nora Roberts and your John Grisham and your well-worn copy of “Flowers in the Attic” (hey, that basically qualifies as a classic). Eventually, seduced by Mary Higgins Clark, I came over to the dark side and developed a taste for the bawdy, the melodramatic, and the implausible.

So I’ll be here, once a week or so, scanning the New York Times and/or Amazon Bestsellers lists and offering you a frank, brutal appraisal of whether a certain book is worth your time or just worth using as a coaster. And I promise not to get all literary-minded on you (i.e., no references to literary theory or how James Joyce had the best stream-of-conscious novel of all time).

The Shack ““ William P. Young

This book is terrible. It is the epitome of exploitative, racist, pseudo-intellectual religion-lite. When I was in college, three-time Grammy-winning Christian Contemporary/90s Crossover musician Michael W. Smith spoke to our assembly and he could not lavish enough praise on this book. You’d think someone who was once named one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People and titled an album “i 2 (EYE)” would have better literary taste.

But I trusted Michael, so I borrowed The Shack (by the way, creepiest book title ever) from a friend of a friend of a roommate, and dove in. The main character, Mack, is a bland but likeable dad-type who takes his three children on a camping trip. His youngest daughter, Missy, who’s 6 or 7, disappears from their campsite, and ultimately her bloody clothes are found in a “¦.wait for it”¦.shack. Apparently she was a victim of a serial killer known as “The Little Ladykiller” and her body was never found. This section of the book angered me the most because, while there aren’t a ton of details about her gruesome murder, it’s completely gratuitous. It’s just a set-up, a scaffolding, to support the conceit that her dad is, like, super depressed.

So Mack is sad, and rightly so, because if he’d been keeping a better eye on Missy she wouldn’t have been kidnapped (oh wait, I forgot, he was heroically saving his son from a canoe accident when she was abducted. Whew. Wouldn’t want our protagonist to have any real flaws or conflict, now would we?) He gets a letter in his mailbox signed “Papa,” asking him to meet up at the shack. So it’s obviously the serial killer making contact right?

No, silly. It’s God. More specifically, God in the form of a very warm, Aunt Jemimah-fied African-American woman. Sigh. You don’t even want to know what form Jesus and the Holy Spirit take. Yes, you do: Jesus is his boring old carpenter self and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu. I’d give Young more props if he didn’t make the Holy Spirit say stuff like, “”¦rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you” and if it wasn’t so obvious he was trying to score multicultural points with his rainbow Trinity.

So Mack spends a weekend at the shack with God(s), which is basically like a spa date for the soul in that he comes out totally refreshed. He’s come to terms with his daughter’s death, learned to forgive himself, and embraced religion. This is the logical place to end the book, right?

Hell, no! [spoiler alert] Mack wakes up from a coma, discovering that he never actually spent the weekend at the magical shack, but was really hit by a car. If that’s what you experience in a coma, I’ll have some of what he’s having! Despite the fact that his encounter with the unexplained was apparently not real, he remembers that Papa revealed that Missy’s body was in a cave. He takes the police there, where they find the body and are able to arrest and prosecute the Ladykiller based on DNA evidence. All’s well that ends well.

Except if you read this book, nothing will ever be “well” again. It was depressing, terribly written, and again, I can’t emphasize enough how distasteful I found the Missy storyline. They could have had her simply go missing, or drown, or get attacked by killer bees. Why take the Law & Order: SVU approach? Oh, right, titillating storylines equal book sales.

My rating: Use this as a coaster. Better yet, burn it, then use the ashes as a coaster.

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